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Louis Soutter and Victor Hugo

MAISON VICTOR HUGO | PLACE DES VOSGES, PARIS
6 place des Vosges
April 30–August 30

View of “Louis Soutter and Victor Hugo,” 2015.

In his sole contribution to the journal Minotaure in 1936, Le Corbusier admitted that his cousin Louis Soutter’s visionary conception of a life—or a house—predicated on interiority was entirely opposed to his own. A more apt alliance is made in this exhibition, pairing Soutter’s works on paper with those of the author Victor Hugo. Common literary themes and a predilection for the fantastic over descriptive fidelity unite the two artists, despite their stylistic differences. Soutter’s drawings flourish across notebooks and pages; Hugo’s washes of ink seep across leaves of paper in waves.

Gothic bell towers and ruined châteaus are shrouded by Hugo’s barely controlled stains; occasionally contained by the use of stencils, they nevertheless often verge exhilaratingly on abstraction. Both artists are obsessed with crepuscular scenes rendered in chiaroscuro. Yet the Romantic writer’s liquescent atmospheres make way for something cruder in Soutter’s unrefined figures and landscapes. Formed by agitated strokes, his bodies grope amid spaces modeled in tangled hatchings, as in Bacchantes, 1923, depicting a trio much like the famed graces given over to Dionysian frenzy. The central figure interrupts the flow of language in the drawing, her foot bisecting the work’s inscribed title to translate the nudes’ activity from ancient mythology into present-day French: a vessel that haunts. Faces composed of little more than ocular cavities emerge from darkness in another work, including a pantheon of artistic and literary personae, such as Hugo, all named on the drawing. Like Hugo’s interest in the architectural monuments of earlier epochs, Soutter’s adoption of canonical literary motifs produces a space in which myth and history might disturbingly collide, even as they recede into obscurity.

Phil Taylor

Mona Hatoum

CENTRE POMPIDOU
Place Georges-Pompidou
June 24–September 28

Mona Hatoum, So Much I Want to Say, 1983, video, black-and-white, sound, 5 minutes.

Lines are dangerous: They can draw boxes, curb thoughts, and create sides that barricade people within defined categories. Mona Hatoum has unapologetically crossed such divides throughout her career, exemplified in this retrospective by works including So Much I Want to Say, 1983, which projects a cycle of stills of the artist’s face with a man’s hands covering her mouth in each, thereby drawing a line between gender roles. To the right of this piece, Present Tense, 1996–2011, looks askance at the Oslo Accords. Red glass beads on 2,200 blocks of soap from Nablus in Palestine form an inland archipelago of territories that were supposed to be handed over to the Palestinian authorities as a result of the accord. The medium confirms the precarious nature of such agreements.

Distance, however, is not only in the gaps between places; it also separates people. In the video Measures of Distance, 1988, the setting is war-torn Beirut. Hatoum’s voice-over reads an English translation of one of her mother’s letters originally written in Arabic, and its handwritten text is shown on the screen atop stills of the mother’s naked body. The two women can also be heard in an overlapping audio conversing in Arabic about manifestations of social and gender norms in daily life. What is lost in translation is made up for in the intimate visuals that blur all lines. Elsewhere, Map (Clear), 2014, is a map of the world arranged in glass marbles that shift places as viewers walk by. This piece leaves us with one inalienable truth: Cartography is treacherous and brings out a putrid smell of oppression emanating from those man-made lines drawn in the sand.

Lara Atallah

“Images of Conviction: The Construction of Visual Evidence”

LE BAL
6, Impasse de La Défense
August 11–August 30

Alphonse Bertillon, Murder of Monsieur Canon, boulevard de Clichy, 9 December 1914; Murder of Monsieur André, boulevard de la Villette, Paris, 3 October 1910; Murder of Madame Langlois, Puteaux case, 5 April 1905, three silver gelatin photographs, each 11 x 8".

Examining the epistemological structure of the image, this exhibition surveys nonartistic practices that have utilized visual information as evidence. The eleven case studies here, each introduced with texts by a team of scholars, range from Alphonse Bertillon’s 1903 protocols for metric photography of crime scenes to video testimony and satellite images analyzed by the Forensic Architecture research group to confirm American drone strikes in Waziristan. Since visual testimony can confound as much as clarify, these examples often highlight the norms established to validate the images’ claims to proof. Each case study receives a distinct presentation in a variety of materials, media, and aesthetics. By adopting diverse museological and installation strategies, many familiar from conceptual and research-based artistic practices, the exhibition reflexively turns on its own manner of constructing truth while engaging in what Allan Sekula termed “the traffic in photographs.” No single mode is authoritative in these forensic cases.

Many of them demonstrate how visual evidence is mobilized to challenge official state accounts and established histories that have rendered instances of violence invisible. The show closes with a series of enlargements of aerial surveillance photographs depicting Palestine as taken by the British Royal Air Force in 1945 and used in 2014 to substantiate land claims of Bedouins expelled by the Israeli military. These images are magnified many times until the individual grains of the photographic emulsion appear nebulous. Recalling Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blowup, this site of muddled material, a contested zone that exhibition contributor Eyal Weizman calls “the threshold of detectability,” is precisely where the expert intervenes to provide an interpretation—here a critical and potentially oppositional act.

Phil Taylor

Meschac Gaba

MUSÉE DE L'HISTOIRE DE L'IMMIGRATION
293 avenue Daumesnil
June 23–September 20

View of “Meschac Gaba,” 2015.

Born in Benin and based in the Netherlands, Meschac Gaba made his first wigs following a residency in New York City. Stimulated by Manhattan’s skyline and hair-braiding salons, Gaba’s series of “Architecture Tresses,” 2005–2006, interpreted landmarks like the Chrysler Building as vertiginous synthetic hairpieces. The fourteen wigs currently on view here represent European monuments and various historical figures.

Paris is well represented in wig form by five re-creations of iconic buildings, such as Notre-Dame de Paris, 2006, whose bell towers of woven brown braids evoke a woolly horned beast. Even more fanciful, celebrity-inspired wigs from the series “Tresses (The Art Museum of Active Life),” 2010–11, range from Fela Kuti, an orange braided saxophone signifying the Nigerian musician and political activist, to The Wright Brothers, a blue-and-pink striped (h)airplane. Recalling ancient Egyptian headdresses and wig-loving pop stars such as Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, Gaba’s symbolic crowns transcend time and culture. Confirming the wigs’ ceremonial status are two archival videos showing processions of men and women wearing them in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city, and along Paris’s Left Bank quays.

The exhibition’s location—a museum inaugurated in 1931 to showcase colonial conquests, since reinvented as an institution devoted to the history of immigration in France—fits with Gaba’s ongoing examination of the sociopolitical role of museums, particularly in the presentation of African art in Western collections. Displaying his wigs in front of an original 1930s fresco promoting colonization through allegorical imagery of benevolent missionaries, doctors, and engineers, Gaba—born the year after Benin gained full independence from France—raises questions about the postcolonial identity of artists and institutions alike.

Mara Hoberman

Günter Umberg and Bernard Frize

FONDATION FERNET-BRANCA
2 Rue du Ballon
May 16–October 3

View of “Günter Umberg and Bernard Frize,” 2015.

This exhibition brings together works by two artists who each developed their own radical way of painting: Günter Umberg and Bernard Frize. What’s interesting about this pairing is that their works initially do not look very similar. For decades Umberg has made dark paintings wherein color appears through and within layers of black, while Frize uses as many colors as possible to avoid choosing between them. Umberg’s paintings are usually monochrome fields, and some of them are grouped into so-called “territories.” In Frize’s serial works, the brushstroke, and its dynamic gestures, is a principal actor. Common ground between these artists can be found in the 1970s, when both became stuck in their respective practices before finding new attitudes. Umberg started to work with dry pigment mixed with Dammar binding material, applying it in many thin layers. Meanwhile, Frize sought to withdraw into an abstract vocabulary where the content and the technique of painting coincided.

The show opens with a display of several series by Frize, such as “Solitaire,” 1999, which are occasionally interrupted by one of Umberg’s monochromes, while in the second half of the exhibition, the main focus is on Umberg’s work. In the center of the gallery is a room with two early works by Frize, both Untitled, 1977, facing Umberg’s six and a half-feet high Untitled, 1976. Here, the dialogue between these two artists is most sharp with defining works from each other’s output looking at each other. For the viewer, it becomes clear that both artists turned to the essentials of the medium to redefine their practices.

Jurriaan Benschop